Last year, in the midst of an already strong awards season, director Jean-Marc Vallee gave us Dallas Buyers Club. The film, while already one of the strongest portrayals of those who suffer from AIDS ever put on film, was bolstered by a transcendent performance by Matthew McConaughey that restored the public’s faith in the actor who had up until that point had been faltering. I bring all this up, because in Wild, Vallee’s follow up, he finds himself in a very similar situation. While there is certainly no doubt that Reese Witherspoon is talented, it’s fairly easy to see that she hasn’t quite had a role that really suits her talent since her Oscar win in Walk The Line. Does that change here?
We center on the true story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), a woman who has found herself consumed by loss, and addiction as a result of that loss. In order to cleanse her soul, she sets off on a solitary thousand mile walk down the Pacific Crest Trail. While she initially struggles with just short of everything involving survival skills, she finds that through her adaptation to the wilderness, there is also rich and powerful therapy.
One thing is very clear from the moment this movie begins, this is a Reese Witherspoon that we have not yet gotten to see, and god am I glad we get it. In what is undoubtably her finest performance to date, she carries every bit of the tortured Cheryl’s pain down every step of the trail. She’s asked to go to a great deal of emotional places here. There’s complex and jarring despair when reflecting on her relationship with her mother (also played beautifully by Lara Dern), fury when nature gets the better of her, and even elation when she discovers a new kind soul to help her along the way, or a neat trick that will do the same. Always identifiable even in her darkest moments, Witherspoon is sure to be one of the top contenders for Best Actress this year.
Vallee’s direction does a marvelous job of placing us inside Cheryl’s head through both the structure of the story, and individual touches within each scene. The tale is told nonlinearly, flashing back from the journey to different periods in Cheryl’s life. While this may seem a touch archaic at first, what comes to be realized is that each flashback is exactly what is running through Cheryl’s mind, with that part of the journey allowing her to cope with whatever the past event is. Also, there’s some wonderful use of narration and internal monologue here that let us feel the tired breaths leave our stomachs as she gets tired and frustrated. It’s both visceral and insightful, at the perfect moments for each.
The movie only really falters by the sheer nature of it’s structure. Since most of the conflict is internal, and a great deal of run time is just spent walking, and exploring both past and present relationships, it’s inevitable that the structure starts to get a little repetitive after a while. After a while, there are only so many nice if slightly off-putting hiker men Cheryl can come across before we as an audience start begging for her to reach her destination.
Wild is an engrossing, beautifully shot meditation of the human condition set in the wonders of nature that proves that Jean Marc Vallee is most certainly a force to be reckoned with. Not only does he covey the themes here beautifully, but he pulls a career defining performance out of one of the best actresses in the business. It’s one of the most powerful stories I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year.